Metro

Top donors could gain more access to Baker, officials

Governor Charlie Baker’s operation would allow donors to gain direct access to him.

Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe/File 2016

Governor Charlie Baker’s operation would allow donors to gain direct access to him.

Governor Charlie Baker, who took office pledging to reform the state’s campaign finance policies, is expanding his record-breaking fund-raising operation to encourage more contributions from special-interest political action committees, with promises that donors would gain direct access to him.

Baker loyalists are launching a new effort to push the deep-pocketed groups, which are often clustered around industries or shared-policy goals, to donate. In doing so, Baker is preparing for an expected reelection bid and raising questions about the influence donors might have with his administration.

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“In an effort to continue building upon our strong relationships within the business community, this year we are expanding opportunities for PACs to work more closely with our team,” Elise Dickens, a state GOP official recently hired from the political operation of Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, wrote in a recent e-mail to potential donors.

The letter solicits support from interest groups that have previously spent money in state politics, often with an eye on influencing policy.

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Members of the newly formed “MassVictory PAC Program” are offered access to “meetings, one-on-one calls, and fund-raising events with Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor [Karyn] Polito,” Dickens wrote. Such events include a June 21 dinner in which PACs can sponsor tables for $15,000 apiece.

Attached to the e-mail is a contribution form also encouraging individual donors to give up to $43,400 per person to the Republican Party’s joint state-federal fund-raising committee, the maximum allowable under federal law.

The venture, campaign finance specialists said, appears unique in that it so clearly brands the fund-raising campaign as aimed at PACs.

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Such PAC-centric financing efforts are common among federal candidates, but unusual at the state level, campaign finance experts said.

“I am not aware of anything like this,” said Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “This is classic creative fund-raising 101, figuring out a variety of different donors who may be at their limit for giving directly or for some other reason may want to funnel their money through PACs.”

Baker aides called the practice of state parties raising money from federal PACs commonplace, and pointed to figures showing that the state Democratic Party and the all-Democratic congressional delegation draw from such groups.

“I’d imagine most incumbent governors are supportive of all the fund-raising activity of their state parties,” said Baker adviser Jim Conroy.

Conroy declined to say how many PACs were solicited in Dickens’s e-mail, but that the list included “individuals associated with PACs of companies that have giving histories in Massachusetts.”

In the 2014 cycle, for instance, General Motors’ PAC gave $10,000 to the state Democratic Party and $5,000 to the state GOP. During the same span, biopharmaceutical firm EMD Serono’s PAC donated $5,000 apiece to the Democratic committee and MassVictory. Fidelity Investments’ PAC sent $7,500 to the state GOP and $2,500 to the Democratic committee.

MassVictory itself constitutes a pioneering fund-raising setup, a joint committee registered at the federal level shared between the state GOP and Republican National Committee. The benefit to Baker and other Republicans is that the arrangement allows them to solicit donations from individuals of up to $43,400, far more than allowed through more conventional political fund-raising.

So while PAC donations are not unusual, pursuing funds under a program expressly aimed at PACs represents new territory, experts said. They called it an overt appeal to special interests with uncoded offers of access to high-ranking leaders.

“The brazenness, one might say, or the upfront quality of promising access and influence in exchange for donations is noteworthy,” said Daniel I. Weiner, a campaign finance expert at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. But, he said, as to the legality of the fund-raising campaign, “It’s probably fine under the current jurisprudence.”

Fred Wertheimer, founder of the Democracy 21 campaign finance reform advocacy group, said, “It’s a practice that I would imagine legal, but creates the aura of selling access for contributions.”

“The bottom line to donors is: ‘You give us money and you get a special deal.’ The bottom line to ordinary Americans is: ‘These donors get first place in line in terms of having opportunities to influence officeholders, and ordinary Americans basically have to sit around and watch it,’ ” Wertheimer said.

Asked to respond, Conroy did not directly address Wertheimer’s accusation, but pointed out that the new PAC program is legal under federal rules.

Baker took office vowing to reform the state’s campaign finance system, saying it too heavily benefits incumbents.

In an interview at his home two days after the 2014 election Baker told Globe reporters he would file “reasonably early in the administration” a campaign finance reform proposal.

In particular, Baker said, he wanted to change the system that allows candidates to collect maximum donations from individuals annually — essentially giving statewide officeholders who serve four-year terms four chances to “max out” every election cycle.

Instead, Baker said, he wanted rules closer to those at the federal level, which allow candidates to collect maximum contributions only twice — once for the primary election and again for the general — essentially halving the advantage enjoyed by most officeholders.

The current state system, Baker said at the time, amounted to “a gigantic incumbent protection vehicle.”

Of his proposal, Baker said, “One of the things that happens if you do that is you take some of the influence of the third-party money out of it, too, which I think would be good.”

Baker, who took office in January 2015, has not filed any such legislation. In an e-mailed statement, administration spokesman Timothy S. Buckley said that Baker has been focused on tasks like reforming the MBTA and the Department of Children and Families, but that he “continues to believe there are improvements to be made to the state’s campaign finance system.”

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.
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